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Apartheid and the Labour Movement in South Africa

The labour movement played a critical role in the end of apartheid. When black workers defied the apartheid regime in the docks of Durban and elsewhere in 1973 by taking wildcat strike action, they initiated a chain of events that led to the defeat of Apartheid. Crippled by uncontrollable industrial action, the apartheid regime legalised black trade unions, believing they could tie them down in the processes and bureaucracy of labour relations and co-opt them. Instead, the newly formed unions, united into the federations of COSATU and NACTU, went from strength to strength, organising and undermining the economic basis of the regime.

While official history highlights the role of negotiations, sanctions, and the importance of international sport to white voters as being crucial factors, the labour movement’s ability to mobilise the mass of people was probably one of the biggest factors in the defeat of apartheid. By uniting workers, communities, students and democrats from across society and with the United Democratic Front (UDF), the unions were able to articulate a positive and achievable struggle for political freedom and social justice, as well as an activist role for ordinary people.

This is in stark contrast to the tactics of the armed struggle: while heroic, this encouraged a culture of martyrdom and an elitism in some of the exiled leaders. Unions put ordinary working class people at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, and it was these workers that prevailed. By striking at the economic heart of apartheid capitalism, organised workers were able to attack the profitability of the system, and play an important part in forcing the regime to negotiate a compromise political solution away from Apartheid.

The democratic era

The labour movement went into the democratic era in a seemingly powerful position: in alliance with the governing party, and with a strong reputation in the fight against oppression. The workers’ movement seemed poised to play a central role in determining the new society, and to help bring about an end to economic as well as political apartheid. During the early 1990’s Cosatu led the way with its Reconstruction and Development (RDP) programme that promoted welfarist social democracy but it was soon watered down to provide scope for the new government’s neo-liberal economic policies that were to come later in the form of the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy in 1996. Nevertheless, fundamental workers’ rights were enshrined in the Constitution and labour laws of the new democratic state.

While the labour movement in the West had been in decline since the late 1970s, South African unions bucked the trend, and were showing growth, dynamism and a shop-floor vibrancy that suggested the power to bring about a real democracy. In addition, South African workers helped develop and articulate a new model of industrial relations – social movement unionism – that seemed to provide answers to the organisational impasse reached by their colleagues in other countries. South African unions had reinforced their central role in society by developing themselves as the economic arm of a broad struggle for socialism, uniting diverse communities, rather than just fighting for the narrow terms and conditions of their members.


From the start, however, there were stresses and contradictions that threatened workers’ unity. Chief of these, perhaps, was the way the workers’ movement reflected apartheid divisions, and that workers went into the democratic era with three rival federations reflecting different histories and traditions. In time, tensions between federations would ensure that workers were sometimes divided politically, and restrained from taking united collective action, or in identifying and fighting a common class enemy.

The other major contradiction was the alliance between the dominant federation, COSATU, and the governing party. This was always going to test the loyalties of activists, especially as the state was a major employer. When the post-apartheid ANC government embarked on a neo-liberal economic policy which resulted in, among other things, a raft of privatisations of state enterprises, excessive user fees for basic services, including education, this contradiction was thrown into even starker relief.

Another fault line was the shift in the nature of the South African economy itself. Jobs were shed in the traditional extractive industries, as well as in the former state enterprises. Both the service sector and the informal economy grew in importance. Preoccupied as Cosatu was with political battles, the labour movement failed to respond adequately to this shift, and a large constituency of workers today remains unorganised and consequently extremely exploited and oppressed.

Finally, there was a shift in the country’s labour relations model to the social dialogue of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) and a feeble attempt through workplace forums at company level. NEDLAC is a tripartite body consisting of representatives of labour, government and business. While it has brought about better nation-wide collective bargaining cover and material conditions for workers, albeit limited, its overall orientation has done so at the expense of an increased bureaucratisation of the labour relations process, with a consequent demobilisation and marginalisation of shop-floor activists. Today more union resources and time of trade union organisers are spent in mediation and dispute resolution between workers and employers than actual mobilisation and building workers’ power.